Virgins of Empire: The Antidevelopmental Plot in Rhys and Bowen

Jed Esty

in Unseasonable Youth

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199857968
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199919581 | DOI:

Series: Modernist Literature and Culture

Virgins of Empire: The Antidevelopmental Plot in Rhys and Bowen

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This chapter concentrates on Rhys's Voyage in the Dark and Bowen's The Last September, two novels in which autobiographical protagonists fail to achieve a stable social role ratified by adulthood. In both, frozen adolescence corresponds to the delayed modernization of colonial contact zones, the Anglophone Caribbean and post-WWI Ireland. Rhys and Bowen are attuned to the shocking, but muffled and perhaps politically unmournable predicament of dispossessors dispossessed. Still, they are not just chroniclers of a class or caste (the plantocracy) going down in history, they are authors of fictions in which the problem of arrested development transforms into a pervasive critique of colonial modernity. Rhys's Voyage requires us to consider an incipiently post-humanist and indeed a biopolitical modernism (in which the key conflicts turn on the play of racial and sexual difference); Bowen's Last September requires us to consider a devolutionary and increasingly anthropological modernism (in which essentialized cultural differences help define social boundaries in the interwar world). Taken together, they highlight the pressure put on realist fiction by late-Victorian professional and scientific discourses of race, sex, and identity that tended to delegitimate, or at least to deromanticize, middle-class progress narratives.

Keywords: jean rhys; elizabeth bowen; voyage in the dark; the last september; devolution; post-colonial; plantation; modernism; biopolitics; bildungsroman

Chapter.  15378 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (20th Century onwards)

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